The Process of Illumination
Here is a basic run-down of the steps I take when making an illuminated folio. These process images show the making of a replica of a 15th c. manuscript page. The original scribe/illuminator was Rombout Ians, who crafted this version of Psalm 6 for a Book of Hours in Bruges, c. 1475. I created this process piece in four states of completion, as a demonstration aid for workshops and classes.
The piece of prepared vellum is first framed and lined for text. Then the black text is inked in. The text goes in first, as it is very easy to make a scribal error, and it’s a shame to ruin nice border illumination! The scribal arts have no patron saint, but a patron demon, one Titivillus, who delights in causing transcription errors. Best to do the text first...
Next come the outline drawings for the illuminated border. They are first done in pencil tracing, then inked in using waterproof india ink. I use a technical pen, but you could easily use a quill or metal nib dip pen if your hand is steady.
The next step is the gilding. Gold must be laid prior to any paint, as the gold leaf will adhere to the paint. I sometimes find it counter-intuitive to plan the gold first, but that’s the way it must be done. Everything to be gilded, whether using raised gesso or flat gum size, is now painted carefully within the lines of your outline design. I find that with raised gilding, several thin coats are preferable to a thick, globby coat. After the raised gesso is completely dry (usually overnight) then I burnish it a bit with an agate burnisher before applying the gold.
The process of gilding is too complicated for a full description here. Suffice it to say that I activate the tack of the gesso by breathing on it closely, then stick the gold leaf right on it. I use both patent and loose gold leaf, all 23K. You may need to apply many layers to achieve the degree of reflectivity you desire. In any case, burnishing the gold with an agate or hematite burnisher greatly increases the shine of the gold.
Next comes the painting. Like the gesso, this is done in many thin layers. Your paint should be the consistency of cream, somewhere between whipping cream and half-and-half. The traditional method is to mix up three values of your color, using the pure pigment as the darkest value. Cennini warned against “torturing your colors,” and so I use a great variety of pure pigments, rather than making up colors by mixing. Paint the entire form (a leaf, tendril, strawberry, or whatever) in the middle value, then shadow and highlight with the others according to your design.
Finally, add the little details and fine highlights that make the finished product look so rich and medieval. I touch up the black outlines, apply dots and fine lines of pure white, add little squiggles and dots here and there, etc... One particularly sumptuous highlight is the application of powdered 23K gold paint, commonly called “shell gold.”
The end result is something wonderful. When you do all these steps by yourself it is easy to see why our medieval counterparts divided these labors among specialists in workshops, which were able to crank out Books of Hours to meet the high demand.
Email me if you have any questions about the process!
Here is an essay I prepared for the Faculty Colloquium at Washburn University a while back, outlining the history, materials, and techniques of the medieval scriptorium. I also use this essay and its recipes, etc. in my illumination artist workshops.
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